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Pyelonephritis is an inflammation of the kidney and upper urinary tract that usually results from noncontagious bacterial infection of the bladder (cystitis).


Acute pyelonephritis is most common in adult females but can affect people of either sex and any age. Its onset is usually sudden, with symptoms that often are mistaken as the results of straining the lower back. Pyelonephritis often is complicated by systemic infection. Left untreated or unresolved, it can progress to a chronic condition that lasts for months or years, leading to scarring and possible loss of kidney function.

Causes and symptoms

The most common cause of pyelonephritis is the backward flow (reflux) of infected urine from the bladder to the upper urinary tract. Bacterial infections also may be carried to one or both kidneys through the bloodstream or lymph glands from infection that began in the bladder. Kidney infection sometimes results from urine that becomes stagnant due to obstruction of free urinary flow. A blockage or abnormality of the urinary system, such as those caused by stones, tumors, congenital deformities, or loss of bladder function from nerve disease, increases a person's risk of pyelonephritis. Other risk factors include diabetes mellitus, pregnancy, chronic bladder infections, a history of analgesic abuse, paralysis from spinal cord injury, or tumors. Catheters, tubes, or surgical procedures may also trigger a kidney infection.
The bacteria most likely to cause pyelonephritis are those that normally occur in the feces. Escherichia coli causes about 85% of acute bladder and kidney infections in patients with no obstruction or history of surgical procedures. Klebsiella, Enterobacter, Proteus, or Pseudomonas are other common causes of infection. Once these organisms enter the urinary tract, they cling to the tissues that line the tract and multiply in them.
Symptoms of acute pyelonephritis typically include fever and chills, burning or frequent urination, aching pain on one or both sides of the lower back or abdomen, cloudy or bloody urine, and fatigue. The patient also may have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The flank pain may be extreme. The symptoms of chronic pyelonephritis include weakness, loss of appetite, hypertension, anemia, and protein and blood in the urine.


The diagnosis of pyelonephritis is based on the patient's history, a physical examination, and the results of laboratory and imaging tests. During the physical examination, the doctor will touch (palpate) the patient's abdomen carefully in order to rule out appendicitis or other causes of severe abdominal pain.

Laboratory tests

In addition to collecting urine samples for urinalysis and urine culture and sensitivity tests, the doctor will take a sample of the patient's blood for a blood cell count. If the patient has pyelonephritis, the urine tests will show the presence of white blood cells, and bacteria in the urine. Bacterial counts of 100,000 organisms or higher per milliliter of urine point to a urinary tract infection. The presence of antibodycoated bacteria (ACB) in the urine sample distinguishes kidney infection from bladder infection, because bacteria in the kidney trigger an antibody response that coats the bacteria. The blood cell count usually indicates a sharp increase in the number of white blood cells.

Imaging studies

The doctor may order ultrasound imaging of the kidney area if he or she suspects that there is an obstruction blocking the flow of urine. X rays may demonstrate scarring of the kidneys and ureters resulting from long-standing infection.


Treatment of acute pyelonephritis may require hospitalization if the patient is severely ill or has complications. Therapy most often involves a two- to three-week course of antibiotics, with the first few days of treatment given intravenously. The choice of antibiotic is based on laboratory sensitivity studies. The antibiotics used most often include ciprofloxacin (Cipro), ampicillin (Omnipen), or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra). Several advances in antibiotic therapy have been made in recent years. In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Cipro extended release tablets (Cipro XR) that could be taken once daily for acute uncomplicated pyelonephritis. A study in Europe also showed that a shorter course than that normally used in the United States could eradicate the bacteria that cause the disease. The primary objective of antimicrobial therapy is the permanent eradication of bacteria from the urinary tract. The early symptoms of pyelonephritis usually disappear within 48 to 72 hours of the start of antibacterial treatment. Repeat urine cultures are done in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the medication.
Chronic pyelonephritis may require high doses of antibiotics for as long as six months to clear the infection. Other medications may be given to control fever, nausea, and pain. Patients are encouraged to drink extra fluid to prevent dehydration and increase urine output. Surgery sometimes is necessary if the patient has complications caused by kidney stones or other obstructions, or to eradicate infection. Urine cultures are repeated as part of the follow-up of patients with chronic pyelonephritis. These repeat tests are necessary to evaluate the possibility that the patient's urinary tract is infected with a second organism as well as to assess the patient's response to the antibiotic. Some persons are highly susceptible to reinfection, and a second antibiotic may be necessary to treat the organism.

Key terms

Bacteremia — The presence of bacteria in the bloodstream.
Cystitis — Inflammation of the bladder, usually caused by bacterial infection.
Reflux — The backward flow of a fluid in the body. Pyelonephritis is often associated with the reflux of urine from the bladder to the upper urinary tract.


The prognosis for most patients with acute pyelonephritis is quite good if the infection is caught early and treated promptly. The patient is considered cured if the urine remains sterile for a year. Untreated or recurrent kidney infection can lead to bacterial invasion of the bloodstream (bacteremia), hypertension, chronic pyelonephritis with scarring of the kidneys, and permanent kidney damage. In 2003, a report on long-term follow-up of adults with acute pyelonephritis looked at kidney scarring and resulting complications. Kidney damage that causes complications is rare after 10 to 20 years, even though many women showed renal scarring.


Persons with a history of urinary tract infections should urinate frequently, and drink plenty of fluids at the first sign of infection. Women should void after intercourse which may help flush bacteria from the bladder. Girls should be taught to wipe their genital area from front to back after urinating to avoid getting fecal matter into the opening of the urinary tract.



Jancin, Bruce. "Short-course Cipro for Pyelonephritis: Unapproved Regimen Shows Promise." OB GYN News November 1, 2003: 5.
Mangan, Doreen. "The FDA has Approved Ciprofloxacin Extended Release Tavlets (Cipro XR), a Once-daily Formulation, for the Treatment of Complicated Urinary Tract Infections (cUTIs) and Acute Pyelonephritis (AUP), or Kidney Infection." RN November 2003: 97.
Raz, Paul, et al. "Long-term Follow-up of Women Hospitalized for Acute Pyelonephritis." Clinical Infectious Diseases (October 15, 2003):1014-1017.


American Foundation for Urologic Disease. 1128 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201. (401) 468-1800.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


inflammation of the kidney and renal pelvis; see also pyelitis and nephritis. Called also nephropyelitis.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Inflammation of the renal parenchyma, calyces, and pelvis, particularly due to local bacterial infection.
[pyelo- + G. nephros, kidney, + -itis, inflammation]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


Inflammation of the kidney and its pelvis, caused by bacterial infection.

py′e·lo·ne·phrit′ic (-frĭt′ĭk) adj.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


Nephrology Infection of the kidney and ureters Types Reflux nephropathy, acute uncomplicated pyelonephritis, complicated UTI or chronic pyelonephritis Etiology UTIs, cystitis, especially with backflow of urine from the bladder into the ureters or kidney pelvis–vesicoureteric reflux Risk factors Hx of cystitis, renal papillary necrosis, kidney stones, vesicoureteric reflux or obstructive uropathy, Hx of chronic/recurrent UTIs, infection by virulent bacteria; elderly, immunosuppression–eg, AIDS, CA
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Inflammation of the renal parenchyma, calyces, and pelvis, particularly due to local bacterial infection.
[pyelo- + G. nephros, kidney, + -itis, inflammation]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


Inflammation of the pelvis and of the substance of the kidney. This is usually caused by bacterial infection spreading up from the bladder. Acute pyelonephritis causes high fever, shivering and pain in the loin. Repeated or long-term (chronic) attacks may cause permanent damage to the kidney, with high blood pressure (HYPERTENSION) and eventual kidney failure. The condition is treated with antibiotics.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Table-II: Comparison of laboratory values during the application of patients with pyelonephritis and urosepsis who had and did not have bacteremia (Median+IQR).
To estimate the incidence of acute pyelonephritis, diagnosed with renal scintigraphy with DMSA in children between 3 months and 5 years of age, hospitalized in the Hospital Universitario San Ignacio.
USG if there is suspicion of renal stones or DM or H/O prior urologic surgery or patient on immunosuppressants or repeated episodes of pyelonephritis and urosepsis.
Renal replacement lipomatosis with coexistent papillary renal cell carcinoma, renal tubulopapillary adenomatosis and xanthogranulomatous pyelonephritis: an extremely rare association and possible pathogenetic correlation.
Possible reasons for culture-negative pyelonephritis include antibiotic pretreatment, difficult to culture atypical microorganisms such as Ureaplasma urealyricum or Mycoplasma hominis, bacteriuria below the defined cutoffs of clinically significant bacteriuria, or infection confined to the renal parenchyma as result of hematogenous seeding [8].
A case of Xanthogranulomatous pyelonephritis (XGP) complicated with pulmonary lesions is presented.
This case of urinothorax secondary to xanthogranulomatous pyelonephritis suggests that urinothorax should be included in the differential diagnosis of patients presenting with pleural effusion and recent urinary tract pathologies or nephrolithiasis.
Otherwise further complications such as hydronephrosis, pyelonephritis, and consecutive urosepsis can lead to significant long-term damage and even to the patient's death [1, 2, 4, 5].
The patient is a 30-year old now gravida 2 para 2, status post complete left nephrectomy in the setting of multidrug resistant Klebsiella urosepsis and left pyelonephritis during her immediate postpartum phase.
Pyelonephritis is a more complicated condition than cystitis.